IT'S JUST AFTER dawn at Tai Long Wan in Sai Kung. The winter sun glints off the surface of the sea where a dozen men and women straddle their fibreglass boards about 100 metres out, waiting for the right wave.
'Surf's up,' cries Shiu Wing-yee, paddling hard to get her surfboard into position. The wave curls, the board lifts and Shiu stands on her fast-moving platform.
The 31-year-old land surveyor picked up surfing about five years ago, inspired by TV coverage and magazine articles about the sport.
'The whole thing looked pretty cool so I gave it a try,' Shiu says.
'I immediately liked the free feeling of riding the wave. It's a pretty simple lifestyle; you just need a board, the ocean and the will.'
This Sunday more than 60 local surfers will be among the competitors catching waves at 9am at Tai Long Wan, on the tip of the Sai Kung peninsula, as they battle for the 3rd Rip Curl Cup.
At 13, Alec Diao is the youngest contestant. The Hong Kong International School student became hooked on surfing during a trip to the US when he was six. 'My dad put me in the water when I was two years old, so surfing came naturally.
'Some days, I spend every hour of daylight on the water. But it really depends on the waves,' says the teenager.
'This year, more people are coming to the beach. Every year, we get a new contest and the Rip Curl in Sai Kung is the biggest of the year. More and more people are joining. It's great in a way, but sometimes the beach gets pretty crowded.'
Once regarded as an expatriate pursuit in Hong Kong, surfing has a much more international flavour these days. Sports shop owner and keen surfer Ken Choi Lee-keung says there has been an upsurge in surf culture over the past five years, with the core of regular surfers growing to about 300. And those riding the boards now are more likely to be Chinese, he says.
Shiu agrees. 'Girls and boys are really taking to the waves,' she says. 'Look around, the sun is barely up and we can already count 50 people. This is a big change from four or five years ago.'
Keen surfers have limited options in Hong Kong because much of the coast is protected from the open sea by chains of offshore islands. But the big rollers sweep in to a few locations, one being the aptly named Big Wave Bay near Shek O. The other is Tai Long Wan where swells from the South China Sea can sometimes build into impressive breakers.
Shiu is among the devotees who chase waves around the world. 'I plan my vacations around the waves,' she says.
She has holidayed in Bali, Taiwan and recently took part in the 720 China Surf Open in Shenzhen. Her next destination is Torquay, in Australia, which is known for its surfing beaches.
'It will be pretty amazing to surf those waves,' she says. 'It's funny that way. In Australia, if there were 30 surfers on one beach, people would think it was mega busy.
'In Hong Kong, because of the limited number of surf beaches, that's quite normal. I hang out in Sai Kung because there are just so many people surfing at Big Wave Bay - it's a weekend thing,' she says.
Choi, who has organised the Rip Curl competition for the past three years, says about 90 per cent of the surfers are now Chinese.
'Every day, more young people are taking it up. People who are keen like the challenge ... If you get caught in [the undercurrent] it's like being in a huge tumble-dryer,' he says.
However, the attraction isn't just the sport but the lifestyle. 'The 'cool' factor is very strong, with the matching clothes and the brand-name boards,' Choi says.
The hip image has attracted a group the aficionados dismiss as 'pretend' surfers - people who ape the look, driving out to Big Wave Bay decked in fancy gear and carrying expensive boards, but seldom venturing into the water.
But Choi defends the lifestyle followers: they may not be much good at catching the waves, but it helps bring more people into the sport, he says.
There's a growing number of women surfers and among the keenest is former lifeguard Chan Ping-ting. 'I went to Big Wave Bay with some friends one day and got into it,' she says. 'I'm a strong swimmer so it's easier for me to get over the breakers to where the waves are forming.
'When I first started, of course I was terrible. It's hard work getting past the breaking waves; every second is a fight. But once you get on the board and ride that wave, there is nothing like it in the world. You feel free. There's just you and your board and the wave.'
The sport has become an 'obsession' for the 21-year-old office clerk. 'I get up at 5.30am every weekend to make the trek to Big Wave Bay from Tseung Kwan O.
'It's not that far and really worth it. People don't realise it, but the waves are pretty good [in Shek O and Sai Kung] and we don't need to wait for typhoons.'
While there may be more men riding the waves, Choi says women are picking up the sport quickly.
Wilma Komala, who started surfing in her 40s, can testify to that. Last year, the 51-year-old business lecturer was the only woman to enter the annual surf contest in Tai Long Wan. This time around, women make up their own heat with six competitors.
Spectators can get to Tai Long Wan via the ferry from Wong Shek Pier to Chek Keng, and trek over the hills to the beach. 'It's not that far a walk,' Choi says. 'And it's a great day out at the beach for the family, listening to music and watching surf.'
Choi says the contest wouldn't have survived without support from the community and sponsors such as Brian and Wayne Parfitt, the Queensland brothers behind the Pepperoni and Jaspers restaurant chain. 'Every year, Brian brings in a boat for free, carrying barbecue equipment and selling food and drinks at cheap prices. He does it for the surfing community.'
Novices such as Jeffry Lam Yin-ok are part of the resulting upsurge. Although she's been surfing for only a year, Lam made it to the semi-finals of the contest. 'I am very nervous when I compete because so many other people are more experienced than me,' says the 28-year-old.
'But when I'm in the water, I really don't think much about anything. It's my time to relax and get away from it all. Riding waves is relaxing and exhilarating at the same time.'